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Spirit of the Aquifer

The pictures above are of Castle Hill; the ‘pen’ or ‘prominent headland’ by which my hometown of Penwortham is named. Although its holy wells have now dried up, Castle Hill remains an important Christian and pagan sacred site. St Mary’s Church and graveyard and the castle motte share its summit. It is also the location of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral.

The wells dried up during the creation of Riversway Dockland in 1884 when the removal of a sandstone substrate to make a new bed for the river Ribble breached the aquifer beneath Castle Hill. Two years ago, whilst researching this (along with Peter Dillon, who has written a more detailed article here), in the state between waking and sleeping whilst nodding off at an unrelated book I experienced a vision.

I found myself standing on a precipice within Castle Hill. In its midst was a water-dragon, struggling, gasping, clearly in agony, losing character, shape and form as her womb imploded. Slipping painfully down a plug-hole, sinking helplessly into an abyss. The last I saw of her was a dragon-girl spinning round and round on a swing, tumbling off and vanishing. Her after-image remained imprinted in my mind for a long time afterward.

I first recorded this harrowing communication in a poem called ‘Spirit of the Aquifer’ (below). (The italicised lines are to be read as a chorus that captures the lament of the people of Penwortham, which I felt needed to be expressed). Following meditation and journey-work at the site of St Mary’s Well, wherein I was gifted scenes of its past, I expanded the original vision into a short story: ‘The Water-Dragon and her Daughters’ (also below).

Castle Hill from Fairy Lane

Castle Hill from Fairy Lane

My visits to Castle Hill and the relationships I have formed with its spirits have been a source of immense beauty, wonder and enchantment but, because of this catastrophe, also a deep sense of sadness and loss. On several occasions I have had my company rejected altogether.

Having visited Glastonbury Tor where the aquifer and springs remain intact and revered (albeit considerably changed) and numerous natural springs I can only imagine the constant out-pourings of crystal-clear water, lushness of damp vegetation and shared sense of sanctity amongst the local community that have been destroyed.

As it stands the sites of the wells are all but forgotten. Now obscured by Penwortham By-pass (which may not have been built so dangerously close if the wells had not dried up) Castle Hill is suffering increasingly from land-slippage. Trees leaning precariously on its east bank in Penwortham Wood fall frequently. Gravestones topple. Because last year at the summer solstice a gravestone fell on somebody’s foot the majority of the graveyard is out-of-bounds.

The fay are still rightly angry and hurt. Magic-workers speak of broken leys and leys gone awry. The damage caused by the breached aquifer beneath Castle Hill on both physical and spiritual levels is inestimable. The water-dragon can never be won back. The hill will never be whole. It will never be healed and it will never again heal.

The loss of Castle Hill’s aquifer and wells has illustrated to me the value of our existing underground water-sources and the severity of the potential consequences of fracking. This has led me both to sharing my poem in public as a cautionary tale and to participating in the recent against fracking protests outside the County Hall across the Ribble in Preston.

It is my intuition the spirits of the land and watercourses and our chthonic deities played a subliminal role in the success of the protests (the potential fracking sites at Roseacre and Little Plumpton are only thirteen miles from Penwortham and Preston). The water-dragon’s ghost can sleep peacefully, for a while…

Spirit of the Aquifer

In eighteen eighty four
a monolithic feat of engineering
shifts the Ribble’s course:
no water to the springs.

From the hill’s abyssal deep
a rumbling of the bowels,
a vexed aquatic shriek:
no water to the wells.

Breached within the chasm
a dragon lies gasping
with a pain she cannot fathom:
no water to the springs.

Water table reft
her giving womb unswells,
surging through the clefts:
no water to the wells.

Unravelling inside
her serpent magic streams
to join the angry tides:
no water to the springs.

Culverted and banked
her serpent powers fail,
leaking dry and cracked:
no water to the wells.

The spinning dragon-girl
tumbles from her swing
and slips to the underworld:
no water to the springs.

Her spirit will not rise
through the dead and empty tunnels,
disconsolate we cry:
no water to the wells.

The hill, no longer healing
stands broken of its spell,
no water to the springs,
no water to the wells.

The Water Dragon and her Daughters

At the heart of the green hill lay a water dragon. She awoke at the end of the Ice Age when the land began to thaw. From her giving womb burst a myriad springs, carving gullies where mosses and ferns sprung.

At the hill’s foot a thirsty auroch was the first creature to drink from the purest, most powerful spring, which flowed into a natural pool. The rest of the herd followed, then red deer, wild horses and the first hunter gatherers who built their nearby Lake Village beside the river of shining water.

These early people venerated the spring. Listening to its ever-pouring stream, behind it many heard the song of the dragon’s daughter. It was rumoured she could be seen by moonlight. She first appeared as a pale woman, but look again and you would see her scales and glimmering tail. To this strange spirit the people attributed the spring’s healing powers.

A line of Brythonic women presided over the spring, serving its spirit, meting its cures until their last representative was slaughtered by the Romans. This tradition remained in the memory of the local people. Therefore when the missionaries arrived they moved quickly in re-dedicating the spring to St Mary. A stone basin was built and a stone cross erected over the new well, inscribed with the Magnificat.

Over the years it became a site of pilgrimage. Strangers travelled from across the country to marvel at its picturesque glade at the hill’s foot, overlooked by a canopy of beech, surrounded by ivy and primroses. Although forbidden, the healing rituals continued, evidenced by multicoloured floating ribbons. People immersed themselves in its waters, took their horses in with them. It was finally decided these activities must stop and the well was capped.

Throughout this time the dragon’s daughter was ignored, yet she still gave, even though her spring was forced irreverently into a trickling metal pipe. Then something catastrophic happened.

The river was moved southward to make way for the docklands. The sandstone beneath the hill sealing the aquifer was breached. Down below the water dragon experienced an inexplicable pain. Writhing, gasping within the chasm, her womb imploded. Her features shrunk and fell inward, becoming sheer water sucked away through the shattered bedrock. The being of her daughters unravelled with her, shrieking backward into disappearance.

St Mary’s well ran dry. Local people were deprived of their cleanest source of water. Prevalent whispers spoke of the bad omen, yet the fault of the developers was not revealed. There was nothing to worry about; piped water would be coming soon, for a hefty fee. The well was buried, out of sight and out of mind.

Yet it remains on old maps and in the memory of the land, which does not forget; in a cold, empty cavern and tunnels where streams ran but are no more. At the spring’s old site or wandering the hill at certain liminal times, you might sense a dragon’s heartbeat or hear her final gasp. You may glimpse the ghosts of her daughters, hear their last screams.

27 Comments »

  1. Gods…this is heart-wrecking. Thank you for sharing this story so beautifully in these different forms…but I wish death on those who have done and continue to do things like this. They did it to the Duamish people and the Black River here in Washington in the early 1900s, and they’re still doing it to the Duamish River (now a superfund site, more or less)…the exact physical processes and outcomes are different, but the crime is the same.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I grew up visiting a seaside town whose success came from a certain point in history when the townspeople diverted and ‘stole’ the river from the next town along the coast. It makes me wonder whether in some of the cases where these wells have dried up its would be possible to take the radical act of redirecting water to them somehow – since farmers dig boreholes all the time. Probably dreaming but it would be an awesome idea for a radical action.

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  3. Lorna,

    this piece stunningly encapsulates your posts about remembering and reconnecting with the land; tying it all together as a memorial, a reminder and a scar.

    really, really wonderful.

    Lee

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wonderfully beautiful imagery!

    And a fabulous click-together thought for me— 10 years ago when I asked the Other World for help with warding my Urban Farm, a Dragon came. Over the years three different Dragons have made contact with me (the first Dragon followed my Grand-daughter when the family moved out). Now I am wondering if the Dragons and the Spirit of our Watershed (with Whom I am deeply engaged… immersed?…at present) are connected.
    Thanks for the stimulating thought as well as the poetics!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. When I was growing tomatoes on my balcony, I had to choose from among the sprouts to transfer to the planters. They were a pretty content bunch, but three of them were much larger. After I transplanted them, I stooped to pick up the rest, which were to be abandoned in the dumpster. When I hit that moment of regret, they panicked. I looked at the three favored sprouts and offered “You know, you’re going to get a lot bigger. Would you like some help?” The spirits of their little fellows joined them gleefully.

    I guess the point of the story is: dreams can be a custodial opportunity. Have you gone about looking for an empty home and tried to call the dragon to it? It may seem to be lost, but time has a funny sort of connectedness. Holy moments join the past and the future through a conduit of love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think there’s an orders-of-magnitude difference between tomato-plant spirits and a millennia-old, massive spirit of an aquifer. (With nature spirits, size actually does matter.) Short-lived tomatoes may be comfortable with another planter-box in the sun, but most water-spirits won’t be happy with a devotional thermos, or even a memorial plaque in public.

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      • I chose a trivial example because it makes the principle accessible, but I was talking about finding a comparable home. In my experience, scale isn’t an issue when the personality is eager to work with you. I do not find the problem to be intimidating.

        What’s also interesting to me is the association of the dragon’s womb and the healing that occurred in the water source. That may actually have been what was really important: the ongoing beneficial relationship with other life forms, the exchange of gratitude, even though the original body was gone. I’ve found that sometimes that the specific form is sometimes not as important as the dynamic of the relationships.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a very human-centric response, though, and it’s human-centric activities that killed it in the first place. It’s an intriguing notion, certainly, and I understand you’re speaking from positive motives, but where the land and the offenses against it are concerned, we’re dealing with things that are so much older and larger than us, and which are so intrinsically and intimately tied to the material world, that a substitute is just not going to be applicable, no matter how good a relationship might exist.

        Suppose you got to be friends with someone who is very good at spiritual technology, that you work with in that capacity frequently, and then someone else decides you are no longer necessary to the fabric of their view of life, and notifies you that you’ll be killed and your body will be put on a pyre, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Then your friend who is good at spiritual technology lets you know “Oh, it’s no big deal–I’ll have this little wooden keepsake box I have for you (that is 1″ x 1″), and you can just move your essence into it and everything will be fine, and we’ll be able to interact just as before!” And if you balked at the idea, what if this friend of yours came back with “But our relationship is important to me, and scale isn’t an issue when the personality is eager to work with oneself, and I know that’s the case here where your spirit is concerned!” If your reaction to that situation is negative, now imagine what it might be for something that is thousands of years older than you and doesn’t really have anything tying it to humanity other than that some humans are the ones who are responsible for its destruction in the first place…

        With mountains, rivers, and wells (and other natural features), I don’t think this is something that is really possible, nor desirable on their part. If one cuts down an ancient oak tree, the tree itself, as well as the dryad married to it, both die. Rivers and wells are far older and larger than oak trees, and to have a notion that such things don’t matter where spirit is concerned is so superlatively disrespectful to the material and spiritual realities involved, and likewise is such an entitled and anthropocentric viewpoint, that it really staggers me that you can’t see a difference between domesticated tomato plants (your self-admitted “trivial example”) and an aquifer and the spirit of it upon which countless non-human lifeforms relied for millennia on a continuous basis. We’re dealing in differences of spiritual scale here comparable to a small mound of sand you pile up on a beach in five minutes in comparison to the entire Himalaya Range of mountains. If some corporation in the future decides it wants to level one of the sacred mountains in that range, all of the Hindus and Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners who revere it are not likely to be content with any notion that suggests the differences in scale involved in transplanting a mountain spirit as opposed to, say, a house spirit are not essentially insurmountable.

        Liked by 2 people

      • This specific problem is not mine to solve. I offer what I offer in the hope that it opens doors for its owner. The message may not resonate with you.

        Let me be explicit, however: I don’t move anything. I’m just a realtor.

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      • When I have the experiences I have, they are filled with light and joy. It discourages me that they are frightening to other people. To reference a Chinese proverb: I won’t be interrupted. Be well!

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      • I’m not “frightened” at all, and your experiences are as far from frightening as can be, in my book.

        What dismays.me more is the rather cavalier attitude you’re bringing to this issue. As much as new-age white-lighters would like to think otherwise, these things simply don’t always work out in ways that are joyous and light-filled, and no matter how much “good intention” and positivity one brings to the matter, the metaphysical realities are not as simple, nor as susceptible nor subject to optimism, as that.

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      • Go back and read your comment carefully: they are words of fear. For that reason, you do not see me clearly. I have been at this business for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time. The captives will be set free.

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      • In addition to finding your literary interpretive discipline intriguingly flawed, I’d only note that typing the same word over and over again in self-reference does nothing to establish one’s credibility.

        You appear to think this is about *you,* and I’d thus question your ability to see any situation–spiritual or otherwise–clearly at all.

        There is tremendous arrogance in what you’ve said throughout this exchange, which is what prompted me to respond in the first place, and it saddens me to see it.

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      • I have humbly offered my own experience for the consideration of others. I don’t suggest that it applies to anyone else, and I certainly haven’t told anyone what to do or not to do.

        The best way that I can understand this exchange is that warriors and healers can wrong-foot each other. They each have their place, but sometimes work to cross purposes.

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      • I think there’s more to it than that, but fair enough…I’m happy to leave it at that with no hard feelings. 🙂

        Though it’s interesting to me that you’ve read me as a “warrior,” given that isn’t nor has ever been a part of my own work, for reasons that the Morrígan Herself outlined for me a few years ago.

        Different strokes, eh? 😉

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      • I have been wondering about how this works: several months ago, a tree in my neighborhood was cut down, and I ended up helping its spirit move (???!?); one of the trees in my yard had something major to do with it, too. More recently I found out I’m going to help it move to another location (details TBD, don’t ask me I just live here and help out as requested). I don’t even know if it should be considered a “ghost” or or /what/, since the physical tree was cut up and removed. It’s been a strange experience, but I’m glad I could help it continue on in some fashion rather than be completely destroyed.

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    • I tend to be quite cautious when approaching such matters… at the moment I see my role as honouring, guarding, sharing the tale. I feel the water-dragon’s ghost has her place in the underworld and gods forbid that she should be summoned back…

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for this. I visit springs near my home regularly; 98% of what I drink is spring water I gathered myself. I cannot imagine what I would do if the aquifer here died. I agree, it is heart-wrenching. Thank you for the story.

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      • ‘I visit springs near my home regularly; 98% of what I drink is spring water I gathered myself.’ Wow, it must be amazing to drink water directly from your local aquifer. I do that when I visit Glastonbury- such a deep more natural connection. Long may your spring run free!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I have been wanting to read this for a while – Rhyd recommended that I do so a while back when I had only periodic internet access, and so I wasn’t able to look at it straight away.

    The words recounting your vision struck me like hammer blows, each ringing with truth. Even though I have never been to Penwortham, I think all of us who know this country well, learn of all its goings on – the wind moving through the trees carries the whispers of rumour; the murmuring of spring water tells stories; our sorrows and dreams are written in the rain (to borrow Susanna Clarke’s phrase). As such, being made consciously aware of the horrifying fate of the aquifer ‘neath Castle Hill left me wracked with grief – the same feeling when you’re going about your business one day, and are suddenly reminded of the recent death of a relative. I feel like I’ve been carrying this around in my heart, without knowledge of it, for years. And now I’m starting to cry.

    I have an inkling that all the water women (or dragons, as they often are) of our country are sisters. Sulis, my patron goddess, has been quite foully abused over the centuries. The Romans shackled her in lead piping, and placed a heavy helmet upon her head – the helmet of Minerva; of a full classical temple and Baths complex – but at least they honoured her. Eventually, the temple was destroyed and her cult image was violated – broken to pieces, by raiders or by a Christian mob, we do not know. But when the temple was excavated, her head – the helmet gone – was recovered. Her spirit, her waters, endure. But the Patricians in their arrogance placed the statues of male emperors looking down on her waters, and in her fury Sulis turned her waters toxic; filling them with dangerous life that would harm any who tried to take the waters there.

    Sulis is, thankfully, still with us. But the thought of what madness humanity has wrought, can can yet wreak terrifies me. But there is a fire in your words that lends me hope. Thank you.

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    • Many thanks for your moving words, Jonathon, they mean a lot. Let’s hope the lessons of the past, as we begin to learn from the water goddesses once more- to recover and share their stories, lead to their respect and better treatment now and in the future.

      Like

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